Kyle just pulled in the driveway, U-haul trailer in tow, after being in Montana for four years. It's hard to describe the feeling that comes from having him home – a strange mixture of joy and sadness. Proud that he has finished school; accomplished so much. That he starts his career in a couple weeks. Blake too. Proud that they are now independent adults. Adults that don't really need me anymore, at least not for the simple things. The daily things. And, I suppose, that's the reason for the sadness part. They both now have lives wholly their own, not as interwoven with mine as they once were. I miss the days when they were. I'm proud as hell, but I miss them.
It got me thinking that you never really know what it means to be a parent – the ups and the downs, the pride and the hurt, the bullshit and sacrifices, the absolute pure, undeniable love you have for your kids no matter what – until you are a parent yourself. And how quickly time passes in this short life. How young boys become grown men so fast. And how young men become old men in equally quick measure. How, just a brief time ago, I was in their shoes and you were in mine. How the things you told me then, that I was often too brash to consider, were all true.
I was never one to learn the easy way, but I get it now, at least more than I did.
It also got me thinking that I've never told you, the way I really should, how grateful I am. Told you proper, anyway. Neither of us are the greatest at talking about that stuff: feelings and whatnot. And sometimes saying it out loud can be awkward, so I figured I'd try, instead, to write it down while it's on my mind.
It's funny, growing up, how folks tend to view their dads as some type of superhero. I was no different. You were the guy that could do anything, fix anything, know anything, win any fight, climb any obstacle, have every answer. The nuances can be lost on a child. But, as I got older, I realized you were a human just like me. That you had the same fears and failures and troubles as everyone else. But you put those aside to take care of your family. I get it now, as I am well out of the superhero-to-my-boys-stage too and they are coming to know me as a man – flaws, fears, failures, warts, worries, and wrinkles. And that's okay. Knowing what I do now makes everything you've given me even more remarkable – because you did it as a man, not a Marvel Comic character.
I'm sure at this point you are rolling your eyes; never one to take a compliment easily. But I want you to know that I see it. I see who you are as a person. I respect it. I admire it. And I'm grateful for it.
I know the work ethic.
I recall summer days when you would come home from the shop, eat a quick dinner, and then be back out working again. Busting up the old driveway with a sledgehammer in the heat; chunk by chunk, section by section, until dark, so new concrete could be poured. Or with the hand-held blowtorch scraping the paint off that big old yellow house with a putty knife so you could prime and paint it fresh. The whole damn house. Every board scraped by hand. It took all summer.
I didn't think as much of it then as I do now, caught up in my own worries and concerns. I know you were exhausted when you came home, but there was more work to be done, so you did it.
I remember those cold-ass Sunday mornings when you would help me with my paper route, so we could get to church on time. Man, those Sunday papers were heavy. Not as heavy as the Baptist sermons, but close. We did it together, trudging through the snow in the dark, heavy packs slung over tired shoulders.
I recall your stubbornness. The more polite term is determination or even persistence but, if I'm being honest, stubborn is the right word. Even today when you get something in your head, it's pretty damn hard to dislodge. And if someone tells you it can't be done, or that it can't be done by you, watch out!
I remember having new tires put on the car way across town and you told me you were going to ride your bike over to pick it up when it was finished. I laughed, knowing you'd never make it before the place closed up for the night. And then making the mistake of telling you that. To your face. Well, the short version is I was wrong. And you proved it by having the guy behind the counter call to tell me you made it, and even had a little time to spare. I still don't know how you did it. Sheer will, I guess. Sheer will combined with a "determination" (the polite word) like few I've ever known.
I recall the hours we've spent together. When I would "help" with projects down in the wood shop. Building bird feeders, and derby cars, and little footstools with my miniature tool set in the wooden box – the hammer and saw with the blue painted handles. I remember the smell of the sawdust and the pride of making something, together with you.
Or you teaching me how to ride a bike. Remember that old banana-seat model you found and rebuilt for me? You even painted it the color of grandpa's old blue Rambler. The one that smelled musty inside, but in a good, grandpa kind of way. Or teaching me how to play baseball. Tossing the ball around in the yard, going to the batting cage up the road. The one that took the tokens and let you pick slow, medium, or fast pitch – where we'd always try to outdo each other. And always there cheering me on at every event – baseball, soccer, basketball, all of them. In all kinds of weather. Even though I was never that great, you were always there cheering.
And camping. Boy, do I remember the camping. Up to Ludington or Gun Lake or Brower. In the tent by the shore. With Grandpa and Grandma by the campfire making smores and drinking root beer out of the bottle. Swimming in the lake that always seemed so cold no matter the season, and hiking those dusty trails through the tangle of woods in the back. The scent of fresh coffee and bacon hanging heavy in the air as it only does at a campground.
I remember you taking me fishing – on the banks, in the boat, by the river, and even out on the ice. I never really did like the ice. It scared me as a kid. It still scares me. I remember you telling me that if the ice started cracking to get to shore as quick as I could and not worry about you. That scared the hell out of me. And made me sad to think about. I didn't understand then. I do now.
I remember the smell of the old pull-string outboard and the guttural sounds of the bullfrogs on muggy summer nights. I remember when you and Uncle Paul and I went out on that lake up-north chasing bass, and I hooked you in the face with the lure. Boy, I thought that was the end of me, or at least the end of my fishing. It probably should have been.
And hunting. I remember us going to that run-down archery shop to pick out my first bow, and buying it with the paper-route money I had saved. And then setting up the hay bale next to the garage so we could practice shooting paper plates. I remember the folding knife you gave me, with the leather belt case that snapped shut. I still have it. And I remember you taking me into the K-Mart in Big Rapids to buy me my own camo. I felt twelve-feet tall with you by my side, having a jacket that looked like yours.
I remember you taking me out the first time. We had that old camper and we stayed overnight at Brower Park. I can still feel the cold floor under my feet getting up that first morning. And sitting as long as I possibly could by myself in the woods, before I came over to your spot and napped on the ground by your side. I remember those damn burger triangles we made because we forget to thaw the meat. Burnt to hell on the outside and raw as could be on the inside. I still chuckle about it. I remember when I got my first deer and us dressing it out together. A total goat rodeo on that warm October afternoon.
I remember fixing brakes and changing plugs in my shitty cars out in the garage together and how you would lend me yours to drive whenever mine was out of commission; you always put me first. And I remember how you would smell of fuel oil when you came inside from working out there when it was cold.
I remember going together to look at my Bronco. The blue and tan Eddie Bauer edition, five-speed. And you teaching me how to drive a stick. And how I would always burn the clutch on the hills. Damn I miss that truck and those drives together.
I remember you holding each of these boys when they were born, me still not much more than a boy myself. And I remember your pride as you watched them grow up into who they are today. It sure has gone fast.
Thank you for letting me fall down, teaching me to get back up, and picking me up those times I couldn’t.
Anyway, I'm rambling now and embarrassing myself. But I just needed to make sure you knew how much I love you, appreciate everything you have always done for me, how grateful I am that, of all people, I have you as my dad, and that I noticed those things you probably thought I missed along the way.
I will always hold you up as the model of a man I hope to be, and there is no one I would rather spend time with out in the woods, in an old aluminum fishing boat, or around a campfire.
Dad, whether I’m eight or 48, you will always be a superhero to me.